The Importance of Packing Light
Carrying as little weight as possible is key for a successful Red Bull X-Alps. Or is it? We caught up with some of the athletes to find out what they think...
When you’re hiking up a steep mountain path to get to a suitable launch site, every extra gram you carry makes all the difference. Right? Adventure racers and mountaineers are fanatical about keeping weight down, chopping labels off clothing, minimizing packaging, chopping anything superfluous to requirements.
But is light always right in the Red Bull X-Alps? Not everyone thinks so.
“As a high altitude mountaineer, I did indeed obsess about kit weight in the early stages of my preparations but I realized the best strategy for this race is slightly different from mountaineering,” says Canadian athlete Richard Brezina. “In the Red Bull X-Alps, a more holistic approach is needed.
“For example, I ended up sacrificing about 200g on a bigger size emergency parachute, and another 150g on a better radio transceiver. These are safety improvements that will give me more peace of mind, resulting in less mental strain, and a better attitude, which is bound to save time in the long run.”
Adds Brezina: “I also tried a super lightweight harness that would have shaved off about a kilo from my kit, but it was such a struggle controlling the glider with it that flying became not fun. Clearly a no go!”
Nick Neynens, himself a big advocate of going as light as possible – even with some unusual suggestions (like hanging a shopping bag off your harness for vol biv flights) – also acknowledges the psychological advantages of comfort. “I think confidence (mental performance) is more important than technical performance,” he says.
Staying in the air is key. As Gavin McClurg notes on his blog: “He who flies the most in the Red Bull X-Alps wins… if you don’t kill it in the air, often times in terrible conditions, you don’t have a chance.”
Ultimately the most important decision is the wing and it comes down to a battle between weight, performance in the air (speed and glide ratio) and how comfortable it is to fly in difficult conditions, a key factor when you’re exhausted and flying on the edge.
But compared to 15 years ago, all wings are incredibly lightweight. In the early days athletes would have been carrying monster 20kg packs. Today, with wings weighing under 4kg (even the ‘heavier’ ones will only be a kilo or so more) athletes will head up the Gaisberg with as little as 7kg on their backs.
But there is another development that has also grown alongside gear development – athletes have been getting stronger. Adds Brezina: “It’s often said that if you train more and get stronger, weight won't matter so much.”
In the 2015 edition no one demonstrated this more clearly than Gavin McClurg. He trained like a machine and flew in a wing that was not the absolute lightest or had the best glide ratio, preferring to go for something that could handle rough conditions. He came third in the Prologue and eighth overall. (This year however, he’s going light – and you can read his reasons here).
When it comes to gear and weight, there is no absolute right answer – it’s about weighing up the options and trade-offs, making a decision you’re happy with and sticking with it. And still frantically throwing out and chopping off anything you think you won’t need!